“Ever wondered what it would be like to live on the Moon?” Bobby Marlin asks, as he points to an oversized drawing from the 1950s. It was made by Dr. James Gaume, who was charged with designing the first house in outerspace—before man had even left the atmosphere.
It’s still early on a Thursday morning, but UTMB archivist Bobby Marlin is a ball of energy, showing me one rare artifact after the next from the Truman G. Blocker Jr. History of Medicine Collections. Housed in the Moody Medical Library on UTMB’s Galveston Campus, it’s the largest and most significant collection in the southern United States on the history of biomedical sciences.
“And this is the million-dollar book you were asking about,” said Marlin, as he carefully picks up an original copy of William Harvey’s “De Motu Cordis,” circa 1628. “Harvey was the physician to the English King James I and was the first to demonstrate that blood is pumped by the heart and moves in a circular fashion. There are only 48 original copies in the world. Whenever I pull this book out to show anyone, I will check at least three times to make sure I put it back!”
Harvey’s book is part of the Rare Book Collection, which has over 20,000 titles dating back to the 1300s. As a certified archivist, Marlin is really a jack-of-all-trades. Not only is he responsible for making sure million-dollar books are kept in good shape for future generations, he also helps researchers from Texas and around the world access materials they need; accepts and supervises the processing of incoming collections; answers reference questions; and manages the University Archives, which chronicle UTMB’s 125-year history through its collection of papers of UTMB faculty, staff and students, as well as the records of UTMB departments.
Several times a week, Marlin is called to a department to look at records that no longer need to be kept. In fact, he went through 133 boxes at Records Management the week before.
“A large part of my job is to document the institutional memory of UTMB, and it’s important to do that without making judgments, because none of us can be certain what will be important in 50 years,” said Marlin. “But you can’t keep everything, either, so it can be challenging. Once I throw something out, it’s gone. A lot of times, I’m the last person to see documents before they go in the shredder.”
As we talk about some of the recent treasures he’s found, a small team of library
staff arrives to discuss a current project with the Texas Digital Library, a consortium of higher education institutions in Texas that provides shared services in support of research, teaching and the advancement of scholarship. Marlin and his staff have been working closely with Dr. William Thornton, a former NASA astronaut, medical doctor and UTMB professor, to scan and upload his papers to the digital library.
“His cutting-edge work documented the changes in body size and shape, including increase in height and loss of body mass in space flight,” said Marlin. “This is timely, especially with the news that NASA astronaut Scott Kelly grew two inches after spending a year in space, so we want to get this online and accessible to researchers and the public.”
Thornton’s collection is massive. More than 200 boxes have been donated so far, and Marlin and his team are working as quickly and efficiently as they can to process it all.
“Sometimes donated materials come in really good shape and are already largely organized; other times, it looks like it was just thrown in a box in no particular order,” said Marlin. “It makes a huge difference in time and energy and effort.”
We walk into the rare book vault on the third floor of the library, where Marlin and his team have begun “gross sorting” Thornton’s papers by placing them into like-piles on a large table. The next steps involve putting them into labeled folders and creating a finding aid that is searchable.
Marlin is also in the midst of processing a collection by Dr. Thomas Cronin, a 1932 graduate of UTMB who developed the first silicone breast implant and performed the first breast implant surgery.
“I received a call from Dr. Cronin’s nephew, who was a 1971 UTMB graduate,” said Marlin, picking up a prototype of an original Cronin implant from the 1960s. “At first, I didn’t know who he was, but when I began to research, I realized this was going to be a major addition to our collections. It’s pretty cool.
”In order to preserve materials as long as possible, the Rare Book Vault is kept at
a constant 68 degrees, with relative humidity of 45 percent. Marlin checks his hygrothermograph, an instrument that measures and records humidity and temperature, religiously to make sure nothing changes.
I leave Marlin as he starts pulling material to answer a few reference questions that have come in since I arrived. Depending on the complexity of the question, it could take Marlin half a day or more to find the answers. But he’s up for the challenge.
“We are here to serve the university and get people the information they need to accomplish their goals—whether that’s writing an article, publishing a book or finding out information about a relative who went to UTMB,” said Marlin. “I work with a fabulous group of people to make that happen. There’s no shortage of rich history to document and share at UTMB. To be a small part of that is awesome.”